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British Values

Are they racist?

According to an article in yesterday's Daily Telegraph, an organisation called Education Scotland has recommended that Scottish teachers no longer refer to the concept of Fundamental British Values for fear that they might cause offence, to quote from  the article: "...the concept of British values can cause offence and could play into the hands of groups who seek to assert that there is an inherent conflict between being British and being Muslim..." I have had thoughts fermenting in my hindbrain for a while on these values, so, I thought that I would use this article as a means of exploring and extending these thoughts.

First some background. Fundamental British Values were first defined in 2003 as a part of the Government's Prevent Strategy. Don't worry if you've not heard of them. I only found out about them three years ago when I started working in the Educational Sector because educational establishments are supposed to embed these values in their teachings (hence the comment from Education Scotland). For reference, Fundamental British Values are defined by OFSTED as:

  • Democracy
  • The rule of law
  • Individual liberty
  • Mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith.

Education Scotland's assertion that Fundamental British Values can cause conflict by creating a sense of inherent difference between being British and being Muslim seems to me to have been dealt with in the value of mutual respect, besides the state of "British-ness" and the state of being a Muslim aren't comparable (one is a country, the other a religion).  

To address the point that some people might be offended by these values, well, some people will be offended by anything. There are people in the world who are offended by the notion that democratic countries exist, that are offended by the idea that women have equal legal standing to men. We need to stop thinking that because something causes offence means that it is wrong (for example, Oswald Moseley would probably have been offended by many of my views, that doesn't make me wrong). If we become afraid of causing offence, then we risk creating a society in which everyone is happy with everything we say all the time. The only way this will happen is by saying nothing (or by being so bland in our statements that they effectively say nothing). In which case the value of mutual respect will be unnecessary because there isn't any need for respect and tolerance if everyone thinks (or, at least, only expresses thoughts that are) the same.

It is worth noting that the quotes from Education Scotland aren't attributed to a particular person, so we may want to consider how reliable the source material is, nor does the article state whether Scottish teachers have followed this guidance. Nor do we know what the motivation behind releasing this information is. However, we do have the following quote from the Telegraph's article:

'...under a section on its website entitled “ Prevent Duty Guidance”, the quango states that it is seeking “a Scottish approach to safeguarding and protecting the well-being of vulnerable young people from the influence of people promoting violent extremism and terrorism...'

If the intention of Education Scotland is to create a Scottish approach to safeguarding under the umbrella of the Prevent Strategy, then this, to me, seems more than a little misguided. In 2014 Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom. Many people in Scotland still wish for Scottish independence. I support their right to this view and their right to work towards that end; however, until this is achieved I believe that it is important that the UK works together with such strategies. In recent years we have seen how fractured the UK is and now is the time for us to build a sense of unity and common purpose, not to have further divisions forced on our society.

All of which leads to the ruminations I have been having on Fundamental British Values. Broadly speaking these thoughts cover the following points:

  • What are British values?
  • Are they important?
  • Do we need them?

However, before we start to answer these questions, let us consider the name "Fundamental British Values." If we should have these values, shouldn't the name encompass the fullness of these isles? The full name of our country is The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. By focusing on the island of Britain, aren't we excluding an important part of our country?

My problem with the Fundamental British Values, as they stand, is that they are too bland, too non-specific. After reading them for the first time, my first thought was that they could apply to any one of a dozen or more countries. If they were called Fundamental Democratic Values, then it would make more sense, but I can't say that when I read them I have a greater sense of being British or a better understanding of her history or values.

So, do we need to have British Values (or, at least have them written down)? I have been on a bit of a mental journey on this question. One of the things I have been proud of in modern British history is that we haven't had political interference telling us what it is to be British. Not for us the pledges of allegiance, the military parades, or the national days of celebration that other countries need to define themselves. The most we had was once a year we were asked to buy a poppy and to remember the people that had fought in the wars. We didn't need a fanfare to be British; we were British and took confidence in that (if you want to be poetic, the fanfare was in our hearts), so, when I ask myself if we need Fundamental British Values, my instinctive answer is "who is anyone else to tell me what it is to be British?"

However, I am starting to come around to the idea for the following reason. We are currently facing an ideological threat that has the potential to be as threatening to our society as anything faced in the Cold War. Our young people are being threatened and some are indoctrinated into an ideology that seeks to end our way of life, an ideology that is without compromise, an ideology that is opposed to our existence.

I want to be absolutely clear at this point, this is not an attack against Islam, as I understand the religion, a follower of Islam is committed to peace. My attack is against a movement that uses a religion as an excuse to commit violence and build power structures to sustain itself.

Our government is responding to the military and criminal (I refuse to dignify these people with the term terrorist) threats and there is currently a debate about what to do with the people who fought for ISIS, but I am not aware of any work being done to prevent people being indoctrinated into this ideology (other than creating a 1984-style secret police through the PREVENT Strategy). This is where British Values can come into play. That people are indoctrinated into an ideology so diametrically opposed to our own informs me that some people feel excluded from British society, that some people don't understand the rights, freedoms, and protections that have been fought for under British law (and the fights that are still going on) and that some people don't understand how they can shape and change British society lawfully and become a part of the changes that have formed British history. 

That some people don't understand this is indicative that in some way there is a failing in society, whether this is a failing in the education system, or changes in society that mean there isn't a collective sense of "British-ness" anymore, or any one of several different causes, something needs to be done to address this short-coming if we want to build a more inclusive society. This is a difference between now and the Cold War days (or, for that matter the rise of fascism in the 30s); then people seemed to have an instinctive sense of what it was to be British, so there was an ideology force to counter these opposed ideologies. Now, there is less of a sense of British-ness and people are more susceptible to these toxic ideologies (whether from foreign sources or from our own home-grown extremists). Put simply, if we don't know who we are, how can we counter those who would seek to change us?

So, after deciding that we should have British Values, what should they be? It is my belief that in a free society, these things work best when they develop from mutual agreement of the people, rather than an ideology imposed by a central government, which will only work with the consent of the people anyway, unless the government is prepared to enforce the ideology (and that way dictatorship lies). However, when there isn't a sense of commonality amongst the people, maybe there is a need to tell people the values that the country's history, systems, and structures have given it and what I believe form the separate British character. What follows is my opinion of what values are important to me as a Briton.

The first, possibly the most important, value I would cite is the right to protest. We have a long history of protest in the country, whether you want to go back to Wat Tyler or Magna Carta, or the satirists of the 18th Century, the Tolpuddle Martyrs or the union movement in the 19th century, through to more modern protests. I believe this value is, possibly, the most important as it also enshrines anyone's right to disagree with me. Related to this value is also the right to question anything (especially authority) and the right to be bloody-minded (during the Napoleonic Wars the French nickname for the British soldiers was the "God-dams" (as in the men who would damn god. I've always been quietly proud of that)).

Next, I would consider what might be called "incidental niceties." In this section, I have to recognise the inspiration of Bill Bryson, not that he"has lead my views, but because he gave voice to them in his books and I have to recognise that I may have been influenced by them. I would recommend Mr. Bryson's books without hesitation. The Britain of my childhood, when I look back on it, seemed full of 'thoughtless thoughtfulness." Without thinking people would say "please" and "thank you," people would queue in straight lines and not push in (or, if someone did push in (which hardly ever happened) they would be given short-shrift), people held the door open for the person behind them and gave their seats up if someone else had greater need. Through the course of my life I have seen this sense of thoughtfulness erode; this is to the detriment of the common good. Consideration for others is something that used to be remarked on by foreign visitors to this country and should definitely be central to our values.

The principle of "Fair Play" is not unique to the British, but it is a principle that has been important to the Britons. I still hear people say that something "isn't cricket" without evident irony. The idea that it is not good enough to succeed by any means, but that we should succeed with fairness and equability seems to me to be central to a good society. Aligned with this is the sense that everyone should be given a fair opportunity to succeed.

My final principle would be the fair treatment of the people under the law. We, quite literally, wrote Habeas Corpus in this country and we should be proud that as a society we value fair treatment of people. This principle has faced a lot of erosion since 2001, with governments wanting to increase periods of detention, removing the right to jury trial and, in some cases, police attending protests with means of identification (please see the documentary Taking Liberties. Attached is the Wikipedia link:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taking_Liberties_(film)). If we cannot respect our own values, how can we expect others to respect them? What is worse is we appear to be hypocritical to those who are opposed to us.

This list is not exhaustive, nor is it intended to be. I don't believe any person or government should tell us how to live. These are just my thoughts, based partly on my experience, as to principles that if we all accepted might create a better society; they are open to debate and change. Ultimately, the British character and values will be decided by the British people, not some person or committee in Westminster or Whitehall. But, I would argue that we will have a better society if we can all accept a sense of commonality, regardless of what principles might form the basis of the common good. Our future, our society is our responsibility      

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